RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Of all the countries in the Middle East, Yemen is by far the poorest, lacking both oil and water. But now, sitting on the tip of the Saudi peninsula, Yemen has become the center of the Shiite-Sunni divide. Last month, Shiite rebel forces overthrew Yemen's Sunni-dominated government. The rebels are known as Houthis, and the government says they're backed by Iran. Now Saudi Arabia, a Sunni nation, with U.S. support, is joining the fight against them. Saudi Arabia announced that it's starting military operations in Yemen, and it launched airstrikes last night. Let's talk with NPR's Deb Amos, who is watching developments from Istanbul. Good morning.
DEB AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Most Western embassies have closed in Yemen. And journalists, for the most part, have left and even U.S. military forces have pulled out Special Forces. So what's known about what's happening there?
AMOS: Well, we actually know quite a bit because the countries who are supporting this operation are telling us. There was a news - reports from Jordan that they are joining the airstrikes, a report from Pakistan that the Saudis have asked them for ground troops. Yesterday, we watched the Saudi military mass on the northern border of Yemen. Then the Saudi ambassador in Washington announced these airstrikes. Saudi TV carried pictures of their jets taking off at dawn. Houthi TV has been running stories from inside Yemen about these strikes and about civilian casualties. The Houthis ran - overran the capital, Sana'a. The president fled to Aden, the second-largest city. And then they were closing in on him. The Saudi ambassador said that he asked for these airstrikes. And there are no ground troops as yet, but there is a robust air campaign in Yemen.
MONTAGNE: Well, tell us, Deb, about the U.S. military forces that were in Yemen - the ones that pulled out. Why were they considered to be important?
AMOS: Well, the U.S. was allied with Yemen's president in a fight against al-Qaida there. This is a Sunni radical group in Yemen. In fact, the U.S. has been running drone strikes against those militants. This is one of the most active al-Qaida franchises in the region. That operation has been suspended as the Houthis' campaign has pushed the country towards civil war. And we really haven't heard very much about the al-Qaida group and what they're doing in the middle of all this turmoil.
MONTAGNE: And the Houthis - now, they practice an Islam related to Shiite Muslims. The Saudis and most of the Gulf states are Sunni Muslim. So it seems as though the fight in Yemen could be a proxy for this larger Shiite-Sunni struggle for influence in the region. What about that?
AMOS: Oh, I think very, very definitely that is - Yemen joins other failed states in the region that have become a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran. We've seen this in Syria. We've seen this in Iraq. And certainly in Yemen for the Saudis, this is a very big deal for them. It's on their southern border. They always are worried that they're going to be overrun by a million refugees as this country collapses. It is moving towards civil war. The Saudis say this is all the Iranians' fault. The Iranians complained this morning that this airstrike, this military campaign, was a U.S.-backed operation. And so, yes, we are back into yet another proxy war in the Middle East.
MONTAGNE: And then late last night, the U.S. said it is helping the Saudi military operation. Tell us what you know about that.
AMOS: It seems to be logistics and intelligence support. My guess would be what that means is drones channeling back intelligence to the Saudi Air Force. The U.S. also had a large drone program in Yemen, worried about that al-Qaida franchise there. So the U.S. is supporting this - these military strikes. And what is interesting about it is just a few months ago, in a GCC meeting - the Gulf Cooperation Council - the Saudis and the other Gulf countries had announced this new military cooperation. And this is the first time that we've seen it in action.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Deb Amos, thanks very much.
AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.